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High-profile Conservatives organizing to shift party to centre: activists

Leadership contenders were among a small group that met in Toronto in June, says one person who said he was there.

New Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer could have his work cut out for him as he attempts to unify a conservative movement in Canada that includes new third-party groups aiming to push messages on either end of the conservative ideological spectrum. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017 12:00 AM

A group of influential Canadian conservatives has been working over the summer to create an organization that will try to pull the Conservative Party closer to the political centre, say several sources with knowledge of the effort.

The group includes well-known conservatives in and outside of the party, according to four sources speaking on the record and on background so as not to betray the confidence of the people involved. One political activist said he attended one of the emerging group’s meetings in June, and was joined by several former rivals to new Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) for the party leadership.

The small movement sprung out of the “dinner tour” hosted this spring by Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore, after the organizers of the new group met at one of Mr. Gilmore’s stops, according to Mr. Gilmore and Nick Tsergas, a co-founder of the online political advocacy group A Strong Canada, which is dedicated to fighting what its founders see as a spread of “fear-based,” American-style politics to Canada.

“It’s the old Progressive Conservative diaspora coming back together and reclaiming its party,” said Mr. Tsergas, who has been working along with fellow A Strong Canada co-founder Aaron Binder on a parallel effort to influence Conservative and NDP politics in Canada.

  

Mr. Binder told The Hill Times he attended one of the group’s early, “exploratory” meetings in Toronto in mid-June. He said it was held in a private setting, included fewer than three-dozen individuals, and more than two candidates from the Conservative leadership race that wrapped at the end of May. He would not disclose the names of the individuals present because he said it was a confidential meeting and he hadn’t been given permission from the organizers to talk about it. 

The focus of the discussion was “seeing how the more moderate elements of the party could kind of retake some measure of control, and exert themselves in a more influential and positive way, instead of being defined by, you know, just the existing leader, Andrew Scheer, and by past leaders, Stephen Harper.

“It seems like they want to kind of distance the party from those elements and really turn it into more of a Mulroney-era, solutions-oriented party, as opposed to [a] more reactionary [one],” he said.

Mr. Tsergas, who was not present at that meeting, said some of the ex-leadership contestants had brought their top financial backers along with them.

  

Mr. Scheer has in the past voted with social conservatives, though he was careful in his leadership campaign to try to appeal broadly to the various ideological groups within the party. He narrowly beat a libertarian candidate, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), as well as a more centrist candidate in Ontario MP Erin O’Toole (Durham), with social conservative Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University) rounding out the top four.

Mr. Tsergas and Mr. Binder worked under A Strong Canada to rally support online for centrist candidates in the Conservative leadership race, eventually issuing a pair of template ballots: one ranking Michael Chong as its top candidate, the other putting Maxime Bernier first—and eventual winner Mr. Scheer second—for those primarily concerned with defeating MP and populist candidate Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) in the race.

Nick Tsergas, left, and Aaron Binder, right, are the cofounders of A Strong Canada, and working in and alongside a burgeoning conservative group that aims to promote a more centrist Conservative Party. Photographs courtesy of A Strong Canada

Mr. Binder said he did not believe there was momentum within the new conservative group to start a new party to rival the Conservative Party of Canada.

Mr. Gilmore confirmed that the group had assembled a leadership including well-known people active in the Conservative Party, that it had settled on a name, and that it had financial backing. He said the group was planning to become more publicly active in the months ahead, and to hold a policy conference in the winter. He did not identify the names of the individuals involved, the name of the fledgling organization, or more details about that group, as he suggested it wasn’t his place to do so.

  

Mr. Gilmore said he was not involved in the group, and that he “quite happily…handed over the reins of this new conservative dinner thing to them.”

He added: “I don’t consider it to be my group, and I’m not taking a leadership role with it in any way.”

He provoked an outpouring of both vitriol and support on social media and the news and opinion pages after penning a column for Maclean’s this spring in which he identified as a “self-loathing Tory” who was frustrated with the Conservative Party of Canada for failing to embrace values he believed many or even most small-c conservatives supported: the need to fight climate change, the importance of immigration, and the unacceptability of Indigenous poverty, among others. He promised to host dinners in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver to talk about whether Canada needed a new conservative party.

Mr. Gilmore’s column was applauded and circulated by many who shared his centrist conservative point of view, but blasted in equal measure by big and small-c conservatives, including members of the federal Conservative caucus. Most of those criticisms centred on two points: concern that a second federal conservative party could split the conservative vote, and relegate the party to also-ran status for good; and distrust of Mr. Gilmore’s motives, because he is married to Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.), and does not have a well-known history of activity within the Conservative Party.

Mr. Tsergas is brother to Perry Tsergas, the president and CEO of the Ottawa public affairs consultancy Spark Advocacy and husband to Kate Purchase, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) communications director.

Mr. Tsergas said his work trying to reshape conservative politics makes for “interesting dinner-table conversation” with his family, though he said he and Ms. Purchase did not discuss it. He said he has occasionally been accused of being a “Liberal plant” because of these ties, which he said was not the case.

The new organization wouldn’t be the first third-party conservative group to spring up after the leadership contest: several libertarians with connections to the Conservative Party, and second-place candidate Mr. Bernier in particular, recently launched Conservative Futures, an advocacy group that aims to promote a libertarian message.

When asked to comment on the formation of the new centrist conservative organization, Conservative Party of Canada spokesperson Cory Hann wrote in an emailed statement that “It’s always positive when Canadians want to get more involved in politics, and want to help grow our Conservative Party across Canada.”

The Hill Times reached out to several former Conservative leadership contestants to ask if they had been involved in or were aware of the efforts to organize a centrist conservative group. Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), businessman Rick Peterson, and former MP Chris Alexander all responded that they were not involved. The offices of Conservative MPs Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) and Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) did not immediately respond before deadline.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Editor’s Note: The headline of this story has been changed to better reflect the substance of the text.